Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1
Tom Boots was a plumber's assistant in Auckland. His life was enframed by a bachelor's simple routine: left for work at seven, knocked off at four-thirty, then drank a couple of handles in the Wynyard Arms. After that he left his gear at home and walked into town for a grill. Later there might be snooker or calculating turf prospects at a friend's place. Tom completed the week by visiting his sister's for tea every Sunday.
His home was a little bach at the rear of one of lower Symond's Street's drab apartment houses by the university college. Tom's bach stood in the shadow of the house next to the washhouse from which he fetched his water; the privy was across the yard and the bathroom upstairs inside the main building. "Only dirty people wash" was Tom's stock joke—in any case the bath was too far away and he had little spare time.
Tom had lived alone for years, he was forty-two now, and he had become unaware of his life's appearance. Each day had left an immunising trace which increased as did the newspapers chucked into the corner by his dressing-table, piling up day after day. His habits, like the newspapers, became drab with age and from lying in the gloom. Tin washing basins stood on the floor; one was for dishes; another for waste liquids, such as shaving water, tea and any beer left in the bottle next morning; and a third contained food scraps. The last two were used as ashtrays also. All basins were emptied on a Saturday.
Inwardly stumped before adulthood, Tom could not feel that his life was one of self-neglect; it moved him no more than did the sight of the dark tannin stain in his cup.
The tenderness of Tom's life was Bertha, a neat smokey cat who strayed for food. Bertha had her routine, too: she arrived before Tom went to work and after he came from the Wynyard Arms. She had learnt that Toni stepped outside late two mornings a week, so she appeared at about ten during the week-ends. Also, Bertha was budgeted five shillings weekly for her milk, fish, and meat, and for titbits when she became pregnant. Tom cooked Bertha's meals on the greasy stove putting them in a safe outside the door. As he forgot often to clear the safe it ponged during muggy weather.
Morning and evening Tom talked to Bertha. Dame-like terms of affection revealed the pain in his heart he had forgotten, the pain of being alone in city streets:
"So y've come for y'fish, eh?" Tom spoke nasally. "Y'old smoodger. Always bludging on y'father, eh ? Y'pore old father! Where're those kitties? Eh?" Bertha would roll over for a thorough tummy-rub before leaving. Somewhere a wooer prowled and murrowrred with the urge. Bertha would be, then, no more "father's 'beaut" and her wooer would vow infanticide.
Early last winter Toni had a terrible 'flu. Some reckoned it was another form of the poliomyelitis. The landlady declared it came from the effects of atom-bomb experiments still in the atmosphere. Tom perspired and twisted upon his iron bed for two days, all the while feeling filthily ill in his stomach.
During the third night Tom watched multi coloured horses running up house ladders and stand on the apartments' gable. They wafted off, down to his bach. Then these phantastic pegasi turned into barmen. One barman loomed dreamily toward Tom and as he advanced, his face became a grotesque mask of Tom's landlady. Tom's waist tensed for he was afraid. The mask burst in his face.
Tom awoke, retching, and an acidy liquid flooded at the back of his throat. Outside he heard "He-ew, me-ew. Prr!" It was Bertha. In the dark the luminous clock reminded Toni, with soulless, mechanical ticking, of the time in which Bertha had not been fed. Tom arose and put his raincoat on over his underclothes. They served as his pyjamas, too. Despite the bitter wind and hard rain Tom went out to the safe. Bertha sat in the lee of the wash-house; she was still, and gusts ruffled her grey fur. By her size another litter was only a day or two due. She me-ewed again, yet now to Tom, appreciatively, for she knew what was coming.
Tom crunched over the gravel. Bertha watched; then she moved up the path toward the street. "Bertha, Bertha." Bertha walked on. "Pussy, puss? Come to y'Dad. Come on!" Tom was astounded for Bertha began to page 19 appear whitish and looked to be transparent in a wavering aura of some opaque substance. Her neck elongated. The head jerked about, to and fro, like a dancing cobra's. Tom saw Bertha's paws moving as feet would—human feet. Suspended above the cat's shoulders was a woman-like waist.
This queer event absorbed Tom's interest right from the core of inside himself. His absorption was so strongly centralised there that only another inward event, such as doubt, would have upset him, even unbalanced him, into fear or flight.
The cat-woman thing, Bertha, crossed beneath the rain-dripping trees of Symonds Street, and street lamps, shining through the branches, played fingery patterns over her forming naked body. A heavy transport rattled down toward town. As soon as it had passed on, Tow saw the bare woman hesitate before the Sciences building. Her whiteness was stark against its dull stone.
Tom broke, running, sending her swiftly before him into the black shadows of the university grounds. She sped behind an army hutment, Tom pausing to see where she would reappear. There she ran—hastening over the lawn to the Princes Street outlet. Tom spurted forward. Confusedly, she deviated before a bush and as she dodged it Tom grabbed her.
His fingers burned as they touched the woman's shoulders. Her legs kicked viciously; her whole being squirmed for release. With his mind fierce and his heart punchingly pumping, Tom could not recognise the attempted ravage. His stomach contracted into a tough ball, its tension shooting shock upon shock into his solar plexus where the tension rewound itself up. The pain of it weakened his effort to fell her. He slipped forward and she fell away.
Tom felt fear. The inside tensions dissolved, flooding out to the surfaces of his body. He trembled. A woman's sobbing arose and from out of the dark he heard the woman-thing's first words: "Go! Get away!" She pleaded. "I want your coat." Toni stood up from the damp ground and threw the coat toward her voice without looking where she was. Seeing himself in his underclothes brought his rape guilt down to the mundane and he felt both numb and miserable. Sensations from her bare, cold flesh shivered lingeringly over his own. Tom turned and flew to his bach. There, he lay beneath his grubby blankets confused and scared and he wept from exhaustion.
A salty taste at his mouth's corner awakened Tom. It came from a tear that had trickled down his face. Sluggishness gripped him inside his limbs. The impact of the woman-thing experience (had it been a dream ?) sapped his will to move. From his bed Tom noticed that the raincoat was not on the nail behind the door. He raised him-self, looked into the corner, over the tin basins to the nail at the wall on which were pinned press clippings about a jockey friend. Tom sought the coat for days.
Each day Bertha did not arrive at the bach, neither morning nor evening. This was not unusual after the birth of another litter. Yet Tom began watching the strayed and impounded columns; he even inserted a couple of advertisements himself and worriedly asked people in the house. One night he went out calling Bertha in the street. He avoided people when they passed, for a grown man looked silly crying "Bertha, Bertha" in public. The worst was in expecting to find Bertha dead in the gutter or behind the house.
"Bertha dead," anguished Tom. Though this possibility allowed him a glimpse into his life. The light from the glimpse was of a brief second's duration and it excited him, but it menaced his existence, too. To change required a huge exertion, so he shut off the light.
On the tenth day of his anxiety someone knocked at the door. It was the landlady. "Mr. Boo-oots," she whined, "I think yer pussy's come home."
Tom ran out to the yard and saw Bertha lying by the wash-house door. "Awh, poor Bertha! Y've come back to y'father, eh?" Bertha had been pulled about. Skin was torn from her throat, tufts of fur were gone and the left eye was closed up from pus caking at its corners. The eye was scratched deeply and she looked done in. Probably Bertha had been defending the litter just born.
As Tom contemplated her appearance there moved within him a light, silly-ish feeling; perhaps his first free sense since childhood. Out of the terror of the woman-thing experience and the frustrated guilt he had felt afterward, and out of the fear of being crazed if Bertha were dead or lost, Tom felt now that he still loved her whether she came or not. Tom drawled at Bertha, "Y're my prin-cess, aren't y'? Some mangy old Toni beat yer up, eh? After all ylather's done for y'. Y're a beaut you are."